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Seeds of hope

The improved varieties of staple crops which hold out the eventual hope of feeding the world's growing population, will depend for some of their most valuable characteristics on the genetic raw material contained in the old indigenous varieties of crops cultivated by peasant farmers for thousands of years. But this pool of inherited variation is rapidly drying up because of the success of the very varieties it helped to create. The primitive ‘landraces’ and their wild relatives have in the past proved an invaluable source of resistance (worth many millions of pounds) to serious pests and diseases, and have provided genes for many other desirable characters such as improved nutritional quality and adaptations to drought or cold. The serious implications of the rapid disappearance of this reservoir of valuable genes is now recognised in many quarters, and work to conserve the variation which remains is under way throughout the world. Eleanor Lawrence reports on one of the first institutes specifically set up to tackle this problem as it enters its second decade.

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